"Chandler says county government should be abolished"
By Daymond Steer, The Conway Daily Sun, January 18, 2012
CONWAY — County government should be abolished, a state representative told about 20 attendees at the Mount Washington Valley Economic Council's Eggs and Issues breakfast forum last week.
The purpose of the forum was to educate the public about the role of county government in New Hampshire. The state has 10 counties and Conway is in Carroll County.
Carroll County government includes the sheriff's office, registry of deeds, the nursing home, jail, county attorney's office and a farm. A group of 14 state representatives, called the delegation, passes Carroll County's budget, which Carroll County commissioners manage with help from department heads.
Carroll County's budget is still in flux but as of now it stands at about $27 million. Budgets are passed in March.
"Today we're going to explore the mysteries of county government, probably our least understood area of government," said moderator George Epstein.
Clashes between officials became most apparent after Epstein asked why the state has a county government. Epstein suggested the nursing home could be privatized and corrections department's responsibilities could be given to the state of New Hampshire.
"Couldn't we just eliminate a layer of government?" asked Epstein.
Rep. Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett) replied, "The simple answer to that is yes."
Chandler said the county government is expensive. In fact, Chandler said his county tax bill cost about the same as his tax bill from the town of Bartlett.
Chandler also questioned if every New Hampshire county really needs its own jail. He also said it's unnecessary for the county to have a nursing home when private companies can do the same work. The sheriff's office should stick serving writs and providing court security.
"You cannot find anywhere that they are charged with going out on the highway and running radar and running investigations," said Chandler of the sheriff's office "It's something that's taken on a life of its own. That should be done by the state police."
Further, Chandler said a few years ago lawmakers were misled when they were asked to build a new jail. Lawmakers were told the then new jail facility wouldn't need any additional personnel. Within a year, the county needed to add three new jail employees. This year, the commission is proposing to raise taxes by 17 percent.
"Let's get in the real world, folks," said Chandler. "County government slides under the radar screen and I think it needs to be brought to the forefront because it's having a real big impact on your taxes."
Rep. Frank McCarthy (R-Conway) wouldn't entirely eliminate county government but says he opposes "empire building." He said that included the commission's plan to move Carroll County's University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension service from Conway to Ossipee. The commission would put extension service into the old nursing home building. In September the county just completed construction of the new nursing home and the old one is now vacant.
"Two years ago it was said that building (the old nursing home) had leaky roofs, it was full of black mold, it was uninhabitable, it had to be torn down," said McCarthy. "Now, once they got the new nursing home, all of a sudden that building is pretty good."
Then, McCarthy said the commission suggested renting the old building out to people who wished to visit their "friends in jail." The delegation told the commission it could look at renovating the old nursing home if the project cost less than $1 million. The commission, however, came back with a plan that cost about $1.5 million.
"Why would anybody in their right mind spend even a couple hundred thousand dollars to move UNH Cooperative to Ossipee?" asks McCarthy. "There's no good reason except you will be a little closer to the farm and the pigsty. To me that's empire building."
McCarthy went on to criticise the Blue Loon transit service. The Blue Loon is run by a non-profit organization that is asking the county for $20,000. Recently, McCarthy learned one of the Blue Loon's transit services has a budget of $210,000 but is only projected to deliver 1,400 rides.
"They are going to need 90,000 riders, paying $2.25 each, just to break even," said McCarthy.
Commissioner Dorothy Solomon defended county government by saying local control is important to New England residents. She said that's why New Hampshire has towns and county governments. As for the county nursing home, it accepts people who need the care regardless if they can pay for it, she said.
Solomon answered McCarthy's concern about the extension service by saying Ossipee is more central than Conway. Further, tax dollars won't have to be used to pay rent to the private landlord in Conway if the extension service moves to Ossipee.
In response, McCarthy agreed with Solomon that government should be close to the people but he questioned if Carroll County even had anything that counts as a government.
"When you look at the county, that's not a government," said McCarthy. "They can't enact laws. They don't govern. They are overseers of county property and county employees. They are not a government per se."
Audience member Ray Shakir asked how county government could be abolished.
"I really didn't hear one good reason why this thing should prolong itself," said Shakir.
Abolishing county government would have to be done legislatively, said Chandler. It's been tried in the past without success. However there's a growing dissatisfaction with county government.
"By golly we're gaining steam," said Chandler who later added the county attorney's office could be abolished and its responsibilities given to the New Hampshire Attorney General's office.
County commission chair David Sorensen said a problem at the Carroll County Attorney's office is the assistant county attorneys are paid much less than their peers in the other New Hampshire counties. This forces Carroll County to hire attorneys with little experience. They stay for a short time and then leave for higher paying jobs elsewhere.
The commission is responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the county. Sometimes it has tough issues to handle. For example, a jail inmate is suing the county and the commission expects a U.S. Marshal serve them shortly, said Sorensen.
Carroll County has three commissioners. Commissioner Asha Kenney wasn't at Eggs and Issues. Each commissioner must come from one of three districts in the county. However, all the commissioners are elected in countywide elections in November. Commissioners are paid $10,500 per year. In contrast, state representatives are paid $100 per year.
The county officials also aired their grievances about sheriff Christopher Conley, who wasn't at the event.
Clashes between Conley and the county commission have made headlines for years. County sheriffs in New Hampshire are also elected officials. However, the county commission still drafts the sheriff budgets.
"When there's a personality conflict with an elected official there's no procedure as to how to handle that," said Sorensen. "There's no process of reprimand for elected officials."
McCarthy replied conflicts between commissioners and sheriffs have come up in other New Hampshire counties. The New Hampshire Supreme Court says a sheriff "must" cooperate with the commission unless the commission is interfering with his or her law enforcement responsibilities, according to McCarthy.
One recent conflict between the commission and the sheriff involves Conley's decision to hire a prosecutor when there's no money for that position in the budget. Sorensen said when department heads anticipate going over their budgets (line items) by over $1,000, then they need to get approval from the county commission to move money around.
"He can't do that," said Sorensen of Conley's decision to hire a prosecutor. "We told Lt. (Mike) Santuccio that they have to terminate that position."
McCarthy agreed that department heads can't spend money on items that haven't been approved by the delegation and the commission. McCarthy said Conley defied that rule last year when he spent a few thousand dollars on exercise clothes for deputies without having such a line in the budget. McCarthy said Sorensen has tried to put a stop to undisciplined spending.
The tone of the forum started off nicely. Rep. Karen Umberger (R-Conway) diplomatically explained there's a "natural tension" between the commission, which drafts the budget, and the delegation, which approves the money. There's also tension between delegation subcommittees and the full delegation.
"We tend to appear as though we're having these horrible arguments back and forth, said Umberger. "On the other hand, that's a healthy exchange because what we end up doing is providing a better budget than we would have otherwise."
McCarthy, one of the most fiscally conservative members of the delegation, said the cost of county is reasonable. His last county tax bill was $1.05 per $1,000 of property value. McCarthy said his tax bill from North Conway Water Precinct cost about the same amount.
"I think the county gets a pretty good bang for the buck," said McCarthy.
Finally, Epstein asked Sorensen how a jail inmate David Hobson, 34, of York County Maine, was able to escape from the jail last month.
Sorensen said the county is in the process of hiring a former county jail superintendent from another New Hampshire county to do an "external investigation." Sorensen said in his opinion it was a failing of management not to have enough corrections officers at the facility. Other inmates may have helped push Hobson over the fencing. Also the county is looking at changing the "fencing arrangements."
"We need to rethink some of our county government positions"
The NH Union Leader, Op-Ed, By Kathy Sullivan, 11/24/2014
TWO RECENT incidents involving county government again reminded me that it is way past time for the Legislature to take a long, hard look at county government, with an eye toward eliminating some of its functions and consolidating others. We are, after all, a state of only about 1.3 million people. Do we need three layers of government (four, if you count the federal government) in their current forms?
The first incident took place in Grafton County (the one to the north of Sullivan County). No one filed for the office of Grafton County Register of Probate, for good reason. Formerly, the register of probate in each county had a significant amount of authority and responsibility. The register was generally responsible for the administration of the county probate court in his or her county. These were the courts that handled estates, name changes and adoptions. In addition, the probate office managed all the estate records for the county.
As a result of a recent court reorganization, the probate courts were folded into the circuit court system. The administrative duties of the registers were eliminated, and the register salaries reduced to a nominal $100. However, since the office of register of probate is created in the New Hampshire Constitution, the position continues, and elections are held. This year, a Dartmouth student noticed that there were no candidates for the position in Grafton County, so he organized a write-in campaign for one of his fraternity brothers. The result: Michael Wopinski, a Dartmouth senior, was elected with 20 votes.
The job won’t interfere with his duties as the Dartmouth rugby team social secretary. As one local attorney said in the Valley News, “I am unaware of any role that the elected official has in the probate office since the reorganization of the probate.”
Wopinski won’t serve long; he plans to move to New York after graduation.
Good for Wopinski and his buddies for executing a successful write-in campaign. Bad for the Legislature, which has not submitted to voters a constitutional amendment eliminating this position. Until the New Hampshire Constitution is amended, we will continue to waste tax dollars paying for the election of 10 county registers of probate.
The second incident involved the Rockingham County Attorney’s office, which is gaining more headlines for internal issues than it is for successful prosecutions. Like the registers of probate, county attorneys are elected. Unlike the current registers, however, county attorneys continue to have significant responsibilities. In counties with small populations, the county attorneys actually prosecute cases. In others, the county attorney is more of an administrator, overseeing a staff of attorneys and other staff.
The Rockingham County Attorney’s office has been a mess for at least a year. The former county attorney was suspended by the state Attorney General in late 2013 because of allegations of inappropriate conduct toward female staff and other questions about management of the office. After suing the Attorney General, he was allowed back to work. He decided not to run for re-election, but this did not end the controversy. Less than 24 hours after the new county attorney was sworn in, she fired an assistant prosecutor. According to newspaper reports, that assistant prosecutor had provided information to the state’s investigators during the investigation of the prior county attorney. Charges, counter charges and drama ensued. I do not know who is right or wrong in this ongoing saga. What I do know is that neither the county commissioners nor the Attorney General has the authority needed when there are problems in a county attorney’s office because it is an elected position. Problems may not happen often, but when they do, it creates issues for the administration of justice. Electing 10 of the top law enforcement officers in the state by partisan ballot, rather than hiring based on merit, makes little sense. Under the current system, a bad county attorney can be elected because of party affiliation in a wave year, while an excellent county attorney can be voted out just because he or she has the wrong party affiliation.
This is the story in Hillsborough County, when Peter McDonough, the longtime county attorney, was voted out by a Republican wave in 2002. Since then, Hillsborough has had five different county attorneys. In addition, why pay several county attorneys to be administrators? How much could taxpayers save if, instead of 10 administrative systems, there was one?
Streamlining and consolidating county government is not something that can be done overnight. Unless the Legislature takes a serious look at it, however, we will not know whether there is a better and less expensive way to provide county services.
Kathy Sullivan is an attorney in Manchester and a member of the Democratic National Committee. She was state Democratic Party chairman from 1999-2007.
Donna Sytek served 23 years in her state’s Legislature, including a stint as speaker of the 400-member New Hampshire House. Jim Cole/Associated Press.
"In N.H., an unlikely campaign pitch: Vote for me — and do away with my office"
By Felice Belman, Boston Globe Staff, September 6, 2016
Donna Sytek has long been among the most important politicians in New Hampshire. She served 23 years in the Legislature, including a stint as speaker of the 400-member New Hampshire House — a body larger than some communities in the state. She’s a former chairwoman of the state Republican Party and has been a key player in numerous presidential primaries. She literally wrote the book on political protocol in New Hampshire.
These days, however, Sytek finds herself running for an office so small, so obscure, so utterly meaningless, she’d be the first to tell you it shouldn’t exist at all.
Sytek is a candidate for Rockingham County register of probate. Once upon a time, it was a legitimate office with serious responsibilities. But five years back, lawmakers reorganized the state court system, saving $3 million in the process, and turned the responsibilities of the register of probate over to an appointed clerk. Trouble is, the register still exists — and can’t be abolished without changing the state Constitution. Sytek is running to draw attention to the ridiculous situation, and to convince the Legislature to get moving on a constitutional fix.
And she’s not taking anything for granted, campaigning earnestly for the useless job. She appeared at a Salem, N.H., GOP picnic over the weekend, hoping to convince voters to elect her — as a way to help her eliminate the job.
“This office has no computer, no telephone, no desk. It has not even a ballpoint pen — but it does pay $200,” Sytek explained to the crowd, in a speech later posted on Facebook. “Now, as a Republican, I can’t in good conscience take money for doing nothing, so I will not accept the salary if I’m elected.”
In a year when voters seem disgruntled with all the choices before them, Sytek’s speech — and her unexpected promise — appeared to delight the crowd.
Felice Belman can be reached at email@example.com.
"Commissioner loses seat on Hillsborough County board"
By Mark Hayward, New Hampshire Union Leader, November 11, 2016
A Nashua Democrat won a seat on the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, bouncing three-term Republican Commissioner Sandra Zeihm, the chairman of the three-person board, from her spot.
Incumbents won all other races in Hillsborough County, including Sheriff Jim Hardy and County Attorney Dennis Hogan, both Republicans, who fought off well-organized challenges from Manchester Democrats.
Historically, Republicans have dominated Hillsborough County government, often holding all three seats on the budget- and policy-setting board of commissioners.
But Nashua resident Paul Bergeron, 55, beat out Zeihm, who is also the Nashua school board president, for District 2, which comprises Nashua and three surrounding towns. The tally was 30,466 votes to 30,040.
“Holy smoke; a Democrat got elected. I didn’t believe it myself,” Bergeron said. He said he waited to see the certified results from the New Hampshire Secretary of State, which were posted Thursday afternoon, before telling his friends he won the race.
He attributed the win to a hard-working group of volunteers and his campaign message, which centered around drug courts, recovery and the opioid crisis.
“It’s something I’m passionate about,” said Bergeron, who said he is in longterm recovery and can bring that expertise to the issue. Bergeron is also a member of the Nashua Board of Public Works, which is an elected position in the Gate City.
He joins a board comprising veteran Commissioner Toni Pappas, R-Manchester, and Robert Rowe, R-Amherst. Rowe faced his first election for District 3, after being named to the board in June to fill the vacancy created by the death of Carol Holden.
In the county attorney race, Hogan defeated Garth Corriveau, a former Manchester alderman, by a vote of 105,928 to 83,121.
Corriveau and Manchester Alderman Bill Barry ran as a law enforcement team, with Barry running for the sheriff’s job. Corriveau ran with the endorsements of unions representing police and firefighters in both Manchester and Nashua.
“Democratic victories for county races simply didn’t materialize at the bottom of the ballot,” Corriveau wrote.
Barry, who frequently runs for sheriff, lost to Republican incumbent Jim Hardy, 99,601 to 76,936, with constitutional sheriff candidate Richie Merrett getting 15,463 votes.
Manchester resident B.J. Perry Jr. was elected to a job with virtually no responsibilities, register of probate.
Other incumbents to win reelection were Register of Deeds Pamela Coughlin, and Treasurer David Fredette.
- Jonathan Melle
- Amherst, NH, United States
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